Marie-Antoinette’s sleigh rides

Christmas in the 18th century was not the holiday we know these days. Of course, the religious celebration of the holiday of the Nativity  of Christ was the same, but gifts, know as étrennes, were not exchanged until the 1st of January.

Yet people liked to take advantage of the pleasures of the season. Marie-Antoinette, as a young Queen, took this opportunity to enjoy the sleigh rides she had known as a child in Vienna. I propose we go back to the Memoirs of her First Chambermaid, Madame Campan on the topic:

The winter following the confinement of the Comtesse d’Artois [1775-76] was very severe; the recollections of the pleasure which sleighing-parties had given the Queen in her childhood made her wish to introduce similar ones in France.

This amusement had already been known in that Court, as was proven by sleighs found in the stables, which had been used by the Dauphin, the father of Louis XVI. Some were made for the Queen in a more modern style. The Princes also ordered several; and in a few days there was a fair number of these vehicles around. They were driven by the princes and noblemen of the Court. The noise of the bells and pompoms with which the horses’ harnesses were decorated, the elegance and whiteness of their plumes, the varied shapes of the carriages, the gold with which they were all trimmed, made these parties a delight for the eye. The winter was very favorable to them, the snow remaining on the ground nearly six weeks; the drives in the park afforded a pleasure shared by the spectators.

No one imagined that any blame could attach to so innocent an amusement. But the party was tempted to extend its drives as far as the Champs-Elysées; a few sleighs even crossed the boulevards; the ladies being masked, the Queen’s enemies took the opportunity of saying that she had traveled through the streets of Paris in a sleigh.

This became a momentous issue. The public discovered in it a predilection for the habits of Vienna; but all that Marie Antoinette did was criticized. Sleigh-driving, smacking of the Northern Courts, found no favor among the Parisians. The Queen was informed of this; and although all the sleighs were kept, and several subsequent winters lent themselves to the amusement, she would not resume it.

It was at the time of the sleighing-parties that the Queen became intimately acquainted with the Princesse de Lamballe, who made her appearance in them wrapped in fur, with all the brilliancy and freshness of the age of twenty, the image of spring, peeping from under sable and ermine.

Marie-Antoinette is only twenty at the time, but it is clear that already she is extremely unpopular. Her love of sleigh rides is ascribed to her Austrian origins. Also the fact that she was obviously and publicly enjoying winter amusements while the poorest in Paris froze to death on the streets caused much resentment.

Last but not least, the Queen’s sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois, had just given birth to a son and heir, while the Queen herself would not present the King with a Dauphin until 1781, six years later. Vicious, lewd pamphlets circulated in Paris, fostering rumors that the Marie-Antoinette had many lovers, bot male and female.

Boucher winter sleigh ride

Boucher Winter sleigh ride

Also this is precisely the time when Marie-Antoinette became friends with another lady who would meet a tragic end during the Revolution: the Princesse de Lamballe. One must of course avoid the temptation of reading too much into this in retrospect, but Madame Campan gives us the rather sad conclusion: the sleigh rides were abandoned after that one winter of Paris discontent, never to resume.


10 Comments to “Marie-Antoinette’s sleigh rides”

  1. Grace says:

    I was on Gabriella Dellworth’s blog and read about you I can not wait to pick up these books and read about Marie! Happy Holidays! Grace

  2. Helena says:

    Lovely seasonal post! I’ve just been over to Gabriela’s blog to read it and I added Mme de Genlis’ description of the sleigh rides in my comment.

  3. Penny says:

    I remember reading about the sledding in Campan. but i put the book back on the shelf until after i read some more history. it seems she did not do much to change her image. today she would be surrounded by all kinds of media experts and public relations and there would be counter pamphlets against her enemies. she also would not have been allowed to push Gluck on Paris or Versailles or wherever he worked. they would make sure she had photo ops at orphanages and hospitals and with the Maternal Charity. too bad neither she nor her husband had the pr of Napoleon.

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Happy holidays to you as well, Grace!

    Helena – I saw your excellent comment about Madame de Genlis and, if you don’t mind, will reproduce an excerpt here:

    “Madame de Genlis, who attended Marie Antoinette’s sleighing parties, wrote a description of them:

    The Queen introduced sleighing parties, which were organised like
    this: the Queen invited the women she wanted to be there. When she
    invited the princesses, she sent a page to convey her personal
    invitation to those of the princesses’ ladies-in-waiting it pleased her
    to choose; usually she only asked one at a time. Everyone met at the
    Queen’s at midday for luncheon; all the men dined together in another
    room. The Queen never ate in the company of men when the King was not
    present. The Queen had all the ladies seated at her table. We had quite
    a long lunch-dinner; then, we went into a salon where we rejoined all
    the men. Then, as one had to be escorted by lords, as people said in
    those days, the Queen and the princesses named those who would escort
    them, and all the ladies relied on chance and drew lots; a very prudent
    custom which avoided the inconveniences of favouritism and malicious
    gossip. We went from Versailles to country houses, to La Muette, to
    Meudon, etc. There, we descended from the sleighs, went into a salon,
    got warm, chatted for three-quarters of an hour or an hour; after that,
    we got back into the sledges and returned to Versailles
    .”

    Penny, you are right! MA would have greatly benefited from a PR consultant. But, to be fair, some of the things that made her so unpopular were well beyond her control.

  5. Helena says:

    The sleighing parties sound like fun! Marie Leczinska must have held them too because one of her sleighs survives. Also in Louis XIV’s time the courtiers would have sleigh races on the frozen Grand Canal. But as soon as MA did it she was criticised.

    I was particularly interested by what Mme de Genlis says about the custom of drawing lots – obviously otherwise rumours would have started about who was having an affair with who!

  6. Lovely post but how sad that Marie had to abandon something that gave her pleasure. But at least once she knew that it was not going down well, she stopped.

  7. I have always loved this painting (Bucher, right?). Is it actually a portrait of Marie Antoinette, or a more general sleighing scene?

    I have always thought Princesse de Lamballe is an often ignored but interesting and tragic figure in the Revolution saga.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Ah, Tristan, I wish I had found a picture of MA on a sleigh! But no such luck. I guess they were too unpopular and short-lived to warrant a portrait.

    Indeed this is a Boucher. I had to be content with a general allegory of winter, part of a four seasons series currently at the Frick Collection in NY. And it’s not even a horse-drawn sleigh, but this was the closest I could get to illustrate my subject.

    As for the Princesse de Lamballe, yes, she is a tragic figure, worthy of her own post one of these days.

  9. Helena says:

    This is what the catalogue of the Wallace Collection’s Boucher exhibition has to say about it:
    “This was one of four Seasons, painted in 1755, whose shape and relatively small size imply that they were incorporated into decorative panelling or above mirrors. Spring and Autumn are represented by pastoral scenes, Summer by a bathing scene and Winter by this fashionable young lady being pushed in a sleigh by a rather Cossack-looking gentleman.”
    The composition is beautiful – look how the curve of the woman’s neck is echoed by the curve of the swan on the front of the sleigh. There are parallels between the two figures as well – both wearing blue contrasted with a shade of red, but for him it’s crimson, for her a more feminine peachy pink. The blue ribbon streaming back from her hair gives a nice sense of movement. The sleigh and the upholstery are realistic – I’ve seen surviving sleighs like them – but the lady is showing a bit more decolletage than would be likely on a cold winter day!

  10. Cheryl says:

    I have a painting of this scene left by my stepfather from Montreal. It’s a lovely painting and don’t know the worth of it? Anyone know?